According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children who are obese has tripled in less than three decades. Recent national data shows that in 2007 – 2008, 14.8 percent of children aged 2-19 were overweight, and 16.9 percent were obese. Child obesity is one of the major public health issues of the 21st century, and its physical and psychosocial consequences can stretch well into adulthood.
A recent article by Boston University School of Social Work Assistant Professor Daniel Miller published in Social Science & Medicine, “Associations between the home and school environments and child body mass index,” investigates the role school and home environments play in the childhood obesity epidemic.
Using growth curve modeling, Miller’s examined the role of the home and school environments on child body mass index (BMI). Using a sample of approximately 11,400 children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten cohort, the study assessed whether characteristics of homes and schools were related to children’s BMI in kindergarten and the rate of growth of BMI until fifth grade.
“Environmental factors are the root of the obesity epidemic,” Miller wrote. “The identification of the full set of environmental factors related to increases in BMI is an important task for current research.”
Miller’s research concluded that after controlling for a large number of socio-demographic variables, children’s overall activity levels, characteristics of schools, and the influence of early health, a number of different home and school factors were found to be significantly associated with child BMI in kindergarten and the rate of change in BMI over time.
Children who watched more television, who had mothers who worked more often outside of the home, who ate more breakfasts and lunches at school, and who attended schools with gymnasiums rated as adequate by administrators had BMIs that grew at a significantly faster rate, suggesting increased risk for obesity. Children who got more hours of sleep per night, who ate more lunches at school, and who attended schools with cafeterias and gymnasiums rated as “adequate” by school administrators had significantly lower levels of BMI in kindergarten. Children who ate breakfasts more often with their families and spent more minutes in recess had BMIs that grew more slowly over time.
Miller’s study also adds to the existing childhood BMI literature on environmental influences by illustrating the utility and necessity of examining multiple influences within a single analytic framework.
“Further research and policy efforts should continue to acknowledge the multi-etiological manner by which the environment can affect rates of child obesity,” Miller said. “It is important [that we] pay attention to the multiple ways that children’s environments can promote or protect against obesity. It may not worthwhile just to focus only on one risk or protective factor.”
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